Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Galle, 2nd day December 3, 2003

It's the Fort that counts



On top of the fort at Galle
© Wisden Cricinfo


When England last visited Galle, in 2001, the cricket was briefly overshadowed by a dispute between the BBC and the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, which resulted in Jonathan Agnew and the Test Match Special team being banished from the ground. Ever the improvisers, they decamped instead to the ramparts of that convenient nearby fort, and from there the show went on.

Two years on, and Aggers's accreditation is all in order. But he still hasn't made it into the press box. Instead, the BBC are perched on an open-air gantry that has been specially erected for the occasion. After landing such a plum position last time around, one wonders whether he is still yearning for the great outdoors.

All around the world, there are some great places for getting an opportunistic free view of a day's cricket. The blocks of flats around The Oval spring to mind, or the swaying treetops outside Sabina Park in Jamaica. And in Rawalpindi, there is a handy fairground, complete with Ferris wheel, which might allow you to peek over the stadium walls for each delivery, if you time it right.

But Galle takes the biscuit. Little more than two lanes of traffic and a pair of grass banks separate the edge of the pitch from the foot of the walls, and if Andrew Flintoff gets in the mood later in the match, he will fancy his chances of unleashing a cannonball or two over the fortifications. But not through, of course. That would be no way to treat a World Heritage site.

The fort was built by the Dutch in 1663, before passing into British hands a century later. These days, its walls are patrolled by a more cosmopolitan clientele: Sri Lankan schoolchildren and British honeymooners, a cricket-loving Irish author, and even a posse of intrigued German backpackers, who didn't know what all the fuss was about until they hopped up to take a look for themselves.

Whether or not they understood what was goin' off out there, they cannot have failed to be impressed by the view. With ocean to the left of them and ocean to the right of them, and the entire population of Galle concentrating on 15 men in white, it was the sort of sight that converts the curious.

The sounds from the ground made for an eclectic mix as well - a small knot of barmy chanters by the grandstand, a loud and garrulous stream of Sinhalese commentary wafting out from the direction of the scorebox, and a host of ice-cream vendors cycling past the roundabout below, filling the air with their beepy electronic calling-cards.

Access to the fort may be free, but only the hardest of bargain-drivers will return to street level with all their rupees intact. The grassy walkways that run along the back of the walls, past the foot of the famous clocktower and down towards the Sun Bastion which overlooks Galle Harbour, have been taken over by curio and not-so-curio stalls. These sell all manner of handicrafts and carvings, only about three-quarters of which are elephant-orientated.

Two enormous inflatable Coke bottles give an idea of the refreshments on offer here, although some of the other items for sale are a little more outlandish. I can't quite imagine who is going to buy a 115 Caliber Bajaj motorbike to go with their hand-stitched napkins, for example, while any tourist who has made it this far has probably already got their air ticket sorted. But you can never have enough air miles, I suppose.

The western end of the fort is where the commerce dies away and the cricket-watching begins. The best vantage point on the walls, and the site of that makeshift BBC commentary box, is the ramparts of the Moon Bastion, which juts out from the fort to form a row of perfectly designed hospitality boxes.

From here the view is no more extreme than watching from the top tier of the MCG, but with rocks, palm trees, churches and ocean all competing for their share of the eyeline, it can be hard not to let your attention wander. At least, that's what Aggers and co. would have you believe.

Andrew Miller, Wisden Cricinfo's assistant editor, is accompanying England on their travels throughout Sri Lanka.